What is Worship?

And how do we do it in the church?

It seems we’ve argued for decades about the nature of worship. From the revival tunes of the 19th century to the Jesus movement in the 1960’s, to the wave of contemporary Christian music that still permeates much of Christian worship today. But all of that is about music, time signatures, instrumentation and so forth. And while these things have a psychological effect that can lead us to worship, those are no substitute for it.

It is the moving of the heart towards God. It is emotional. It is relational. It is motivational. It is transformational.

Worship is emotional. Worship calls for feeling: joy, awe, happiness, sorrow, but there ought always to be feeling in worship. It ought to make you feel something. Worship without feeling is cold and emotionless, and really isn’t worship so much as following time signatures and carrying a tune. Worship ought to elevate your presence in a “hypnogogic” state, a state of semi-prayer, where your awareness is elevated into the presence of God. That ought to cause some kind of emotional reaction, if only fear. Without emotion, worship is dead.

Worship is relational. Worship is a response to God’s own work in us. He has called us to Himself, to be His people, to follow His word! Worship comes out of this relationship. That’s why most of the work of worship needs to be done throughout the week. We pray and read the Scriptures. We fellowship together, participate in acts of service for one another, and help the needy, feed the poor, etc. All of these things we do because we have a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Worship is motivational. Worship ought to inspire us to do. We ought to leave the worship motivated to participate in the body life of the church. We ought to want to draw closer to than before because we want more, and Jesus is the wellspring of the water of life. The more we draw, the more we want. Worship ought to be a conduit for that.

Worship is transformational. It should change us. Outwardly we are wasting away, but inwardly we are being renewed day by day. In Jesus our hearts change. We become more peaceful, more gracious, more self-controlled, more joyful, more patient and so on.

It is our obligation as believers to worship the Lord. A Christian who does not worship is what? Proud? Stubborn? Disconnected? Worship ought to be as natural as breathing for the believer. And yet many Christians today are struggling with worship. I count myself among them.

For a couple years I have been attending a church which practices what I call the “Hillsong” method of worship, which basically emphasizes quantity over quality. So many of the new worship songs that come out are designed for worship bands, not worshiping Christians. They have difficult melodies which require much practice to get right, often have vapid lyrics which emphasize feeling over substance, and are performed only a few times until the band moves onto the next new song. Old favorites are rarely sung again. Songs we we worked so hard to learn over the four weeks we heard them are tossed into the dustbin in favor the the latest and greatest. There is something to be said for keeping current, but it is often at the expense of worship, and the “worship service” becomes a weekly concert of Christian music, and this you have to listen closely to, since it often sounds like any other kind of love songs you hear on the radio.

So I have been challenged in my ability to worship personally. I’ve turned back to some of the old hymns that my heart knows. I’ve re-examined these old familiar lyrics and found fresh meaning in them, something that growing up I never really took the time to think about. I think you can do that when you reflect on those old hymns.

When we all get to heaven,

What a day of rejoicing that will be.

When we all see Jesus,

We’ll sing and shout the victory. (When We All Get To Heaven)

This is an old hymn I’ve sung a thousand times, but just rushed through the words just to sing them. But think about them for a moment. It will be a great day of rejoicing when we get to heaven. It will be the most important day of our lives. And then we will all see Jesus, the One who died for us, Who rose for us, and bears even now the scars of His sacrifice. We will get to see Him, His face. Just … wow. Then we will sing and shout the victory over sin and death, over temptation and the devil. We will sing and we will enjoy the most powerful worship we will ever experiences. Can we sit still at that thought?

In the picture below, I’ve attempted to put some of these thoughts together. We tend to think of worship in one of three ways. Worship as its own thing, the singing of music, and prayers of worship. In subtle ways, these three aspects overlap. When worship and singing overlap, they become songs of praise. When worship and prayer overlap, they become like the spoken Psalms. And when singing and prayer overlap, they become deeply spiritual songs, and for my part, tend to bring out tears. But it is at the combination of all three that I see hymns, those old traditional pieces that have been so rooted in the heart that their words are like prayer, their complexity calls for skill in singing, but their intent is pure worship.

That’s not to say that hymns remain a static group, since many of the hymns in the hymnbooks were not and are still not popular today. I believe in a great settling period for Christian music. There are some hymns that we will always sing (Amazing Grace, Just as I Am, to name a couple), and there is always new music being produced. I predict that many of the songs produced today will be someone’s “growing up” music, and they too will revisit them later on, rediscovering their sense of worship. These too will be added as “hymns” at some point. (A hymn is a piece of music that both encourages worship, and teaches important theological truth in a memorable fashion, for people will more likely remember a hymn as they will a Scripture.) Hymn music ought to say something about God. Hymns (and good worship music) ought to praise God, not how we feel about Him. It ought to be God-directed, not man-focused, and this is the error I feel a lot of “worship” services tend to take today. I want to encourage all of our worship leaders to really put some thought into how they worship and bring others into that space. It really and truly matters to a lot of people.

If I was leading worship, I would work to find the best of the best of the old and the best of the new. Every generation has music that speaks to them. As a leader of worship, it would be my privilege of bringing everyone, as far as possible, to the presence of Jesus through music, depending on them to present themselves in worship to the Lord.

But that’s just my two cents.

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I've been in ministry in the Christian Churches/ Churches of Christ for 20+ years. Finished my doctorate in Biblical Studies in 2015. Serve today as a Hospital Chaplain.

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